Candidates tell mayor, aldermen why they should be next city attorney

Published 12:06 am Saturday, July 30, 2016

NATCHEZ — Four local lawyers made a case for why they should be the next Natchez city attorney to the Natchez aldermen Friday.

The board and Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell interviewed Everett Sanders, Robert “Bob” Latham, Christina Daughtery and Lisa Chandler in the conference room of City Hall.

The interviews followed the board’s split decision at its Tuesday meeting to rescind its recent appointment of Sanders as city attorney, which has been a point of contention among the mayor and board since they took office and appointed Sanders in a 3-2 vote on July 1.

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Grennell broke a 3-3 tie at Tuesday’s board of aldermen meeting, voting for the motion to rescind made by Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith.

The board interviewed each of the candidates separately Friday afternoon, asking questions about their experience, notable cases in their careers, any bar complaints, professional liability insurance and other matters.

Adams County Board of Supervisors Attorney Scott Slover facilitated the process. Slover has been serving as legal counsel for the city while the mayor and board sort out the city attorney situation.

Each candidate has private practice experience and some form of government law experience.

Chandler has experience in real estate title work through former Adams County Board of Supervisors Attorney Bobby Cox and Slover, as well as the most recent city attorney, Hyde Carby.

Daughtery represents the Natchez-Adams County Recreation Commission, the Natchez Convention Promotion Commission and Williams County, Tenn.

Latham has represented the Adams County Election Commission, the Adams County Board of Supervisors and routinely filled in for former county board attorney Marion Smith, among other experience.

Sanders served as city attorney from 2006 until 2012, as well as his experience as attorney for the city’s Civil Service Commission, Claiborne County Board of Education, Jefferson County Board of Supervisors, Wilkinson County Board of Supervisors, the Town of Fayette and others. Sanders is still currently the attorney for the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors.

Noticeably absent from Sanders’ interview were any questions regarding the fact that Sanders was city attorney when the city lost a judgment after failing to respond to an ongoing lawsuit by the court appointed deadline.

Much of the criticism of Sanders’ appointment from the public and other officials has been directed at Sanders’ perceived role in the judgment issued in 2011 by Circuit Court Judge Forrest “Al” Johnson ruled in a default judgment against the city for breach of contract and misrepresentation

In the lawsuit, Roundstone Development seeks $1.8 million in damages after the city denied its zoning application to allow construction of a housing development stretching from Old Washington Road to Oriole Terrace.

The aldermen collectively agreed following the meeting that no questions regarding the lawsuit had been posed to Sanders about the lawsuit because it is ongoing litigation.

“Anything that would be discussed could be used against them in court,” Slover said

The other candidates were asked whether a default judgment had been issued in any of their cases, with Latham and Chandler both saying no.

Daughtery informed the board of a default judgment entered against one of her clients during her time practicing in Tennessee in a questionnaire sent to candidates prior to the interviews and when she was asked by Ward 5 Alderman Benjamin Davis what her biggest failure was and what she learned from it. The default judgment was subsequently set aside by the court following Daughtery’s application for such.

Daughtery said the default judgment occurred during a particularly difficult time in her life.

“In that particular case, I would share the name of my client … because they will follow you to the end of the earth based on what I did for them, and that was my mistake (that) caused it, and I fixed it. I learned that regardless of your personal life, you have to keep up with your professional life or hand it off to someone else.”

Latham, Daughtery and Chandler provided information about their professional liability insurance, while Sanders refused to answer the question.

Sanders also refused to answer Smith’s question about whether any bar complaints had been filed against him.

Bar complaints are not available for public inspection without the written consent of the attorney in question unless they involve disciplinary action.

According to the Mississippi Bar Association’s Office of General Counsel, Sanders is in good standing with no history of public reprimand, suspension or disbarment.

Daughtery and Chandler said they have had no bar complaints filed against them, and the one complaint filed against Latham was found frivolous and expunged from his record, he said.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard made sure each candidate knew that if appointed, they would be representing the City of Natchez, which is chiefly represented by the board of aldermen. Dillard implied that while the mayor may work closely daily with the city attorney, the aldermen are more likely to be on the hook with lawsuit given the amount of their combined surety bonds.

During Latham’s interview, Dillard said in some cases, the city attorney “will work so closely with the mayor that they become a team, and in some cases I find that they will have worked out something in their heads and be moving forward (with) it, and it shows up in a board meeting, and it’s not on the agenda, and then all of the sudden the board members are finding out at last. I have to continue to press upon each and every one of the applicants that as the attorney for the City of Natchez, (the) … aldermen are the city’s representatives. The mayor is essentially the manager of the store. We represent the people who own the store.”

Grennell interrupted Dillard to say, clearly sarcastically, he wondered why he was elected.

“I should have been hired by the board,” Grennell said, to laughter from some of the aldermen. “I was elected by every ward in here and actually won every single ward.”

Grennell said he wanted to assure Dillard and the aldermen that they would be the decision-makers.

Dillard replied saying, “I probably should have made a decision prior to July 1 and had I had the opportunity to do it … but here we are.”

Irving nodded her head agreement.

“That’s it, that’s it,” she said. “I feel the exact same way.”

Dillard and Irving were apparently referring to Grennell having publicly tapped Latham as Grennell’s choice for attorney prior to the mayor and board’s July 1 swearing-in ceremony.

Just hours after that ceremony, Grennell was blindsided with Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis’ nomination of Sanders for city attorney and the subsequent 3-2 vote to appoint him. Sanders was sworn in moments after the vote between himself and Latham, who was nominated by Smith.

Grennell has said he did not contact all of the aldermen prior to the July 1 meeting to discuss Latham’s appointment, and Dillard has said he read about Grennell’s choice of Latham in the newspaper.

When answering a question about why he was interested in the city attorney job with remarks about the position being a form of public service and giving back to the community, Sanders stopped to preface his answer with

“I don’t want it to be interpreted that my participation in this interview in any way waives or diminishes my contention that I was hired on July 1 and that I am still city attorney.

“With that being said, I am here to participate without waiving that contention.”

Slover then said that he hoped Sanders did not interpret Slover’s presence at the meeting “as any comment on that either. I’m trying to facilitate, Mr. Sanders.”

While the city attorney position has historically been structured so that the attorney provides legal counsel to the city while also maintaining a private practice, Daughtery said she would be open to that structure or a staff attorney position, meaning a full-time city attorney with no other clients.

Dillard said he had not considered that option, but found it interesting. Dillard had voiced concerns earlier about lawyers with other clients being able to manage that workload and city business.

Smith said her research shows that with the base salary the city offers an attorney plus other billable hours, the city could possibly spend the same amount or less on a full-time attorney.

The board’s shortest interview of the afternoon was with Chandler, likely because they recently interviewed her for the position of public defender for Natchez Municipal Court, a position for which she was not selected.

Following the interviews, Dillard said he was impressed with each of the candidates interviewed and glad the board elected to conduct an interview process.

The board recessed the Friday’s meeting, saying discussion would be picked back up when they reconvene Monday following a meeting with Natchez Inc., the Adams County Board of Supervisors and others.

The board could potentially vote on the attorney appointment Monday, but aldermen said they were comfortable leaving the decision until their next regularly scheduled meeting Aug. 9. The board gave Grennell permission to continue utilizing Slover as legal counsel in the interim.

Local lawyer Jeremy Diamond previously applied for the city attorney position, but withdrew his application for consideration.